Pancha Kosha means “five layers of existence.” Pancha means “five” and kosha means “layer.” Therefore, if we dissect ourselves and group the results into five overarching levels, we get the following five koshas:
- Annamaya Kosha (Physical Layer)
- Pranamaya Kosha (Energy Layer)
- Manomaya Kosha (Mental Layer)
- Vijnanamaya Kosha (Intellectual Layer)
- Anandamaya Kosha (Blissful Layer)
This layer is the physical body. It is matter-based, so it is centered around the atoms and elements that make up our bodies. It includes the five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch; and the five elements: fire, water, air, earth, and ether. Body movements, hunger or thirst, and any other physical needs belong to the Annamaya Kosha. It is nourished by the food we eat, so keeping a healthy diet is important.
This layer is composed of prana, or life force holds the mind and body together. In traditional yoga philosophy, prana is defined as “the energy from which the physical body manifests itself.” This energy is thought to flow throughout the body into each and every cell. To adapt this classic definition to modern knowledge, we simply consider prana to be our breath, as it is what keeps us alive. By regulating our breathing through pranayama and other yogic techniques, we can satisfy this layer.
The Manomaya Kosha is the mental layer. It is composed of our mental functions such as emotion, perception, memory, and ego. What we feel in response to a stimulus, our mood as a whole, the set of emotions, and our likes and dislikes all are included in this layer. When emotions grow stronger; they govern against our intellect, which is why the Manomaya and Vijnanamaya Koshas often clash, causing stress.
This is the second layer of the mind, but fourth layer overall. It is essentially our intellect, which is much more advanced and requires greater amount of awareness to control distinguishing it as a separate layer entirely. Consider the Vijnanamaya Kosha to be our conscience. It is responsible for our wisdom and the decisions we make—the ability to distinguish right from wrong.
As previously mentioned, the Vijnanamaya Kosha often clashes with the Manomaya Kosha. Here is an example some of us with arachnophobia experience all too often.
When you see a spider in the corner of your room late at night, your first instinct is to scream. This is your Manomaya Kosha taking over. Just then, your Vijnanamaya Kosha steps in and reminds you that people are sleeping in the house, and it is wrong of you to wake them up over something as trivial as a spider. Thus, you do not scream and proceed to take logical steps to remove the spider from your room.
Screaming out of fright would be an instinctive, emotional response. Not screaming out of logic would be the wise, intellectual response. Therefore, we can see that the Vijnanamaya Kosha is crucial to determining the character of a person. The ability to control your emotions is an extremely difficult task, only possible by mastery of the Vijnanamaya Kosha. Your emotional response is the first thing that comes to mind, but your intellectual response requires a significantly greater amount of thinking and evaluation of the situation.
This is the final, innermost layer of our bodies. It is the most subtle and also hardest to master. The Anandamaya Kosha is the layer where we experience complete bliss—true and utter happiness. It is being devoid of any emotion, a state of total silence, a state of complete harmony, and perfect health. Ananda in Sanskrit actually means “bliss,” representing what this layer is.
One can experience bliss in many different ways, some more intense than others, but it is still bliss nonetheless. For instance, the classic example used is usually renowned yogis who achieve samadhi through years of meditation. This is not practical today, nor is it necessary. You can reach your Anandamaya Kosha on a day-to-day basis. For example, if you are dehydrated and thirsty, water is all your body desires at the time. The exact moment when your body registers the water droplets splashing against your tongue is when you experience an incredible feeling. It cannot be described as happiness, or joy, or even elation. There is only one word for it—bliss. This is the Anandamaya Kosha.
Often, our existence is metaphorically compared to an onion, with the Pancha Koshas represented by the layers of the onion. Just as we peel the layers of an onion to find its heart, we peel our layers of existence to find our inner atman (soul). However, this does not mean that the atman is the only important part of us. Just as all the layers of an onion make up the entire onion we need all our layers in balance to represent who we truly are. To stay healthy, we should pay attention to all five layers of our existence.